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What it’s like to receive user research findings

As a user researcher, I often deliver bad news to clients – a long list of problems with their application or product and an intimidating list of recommended changes. It’s easy for me to think that the client should immediately set about making all these recommended changes. And when some of those changes aren’t made, I shake my head and can’t understand why they just don’t get it.

It’s not often that I’ve put myself in the client’s shoes to think about what they’re going through when they get the news. I’ve never been in the position of being the owner of an application or product who has to listen to a long list of problems that need to be fixed. So how can I empathize with what the client goes through?

I am, however, a homeowner who bought an older house after getting a home inspector to inspect the house. His inspection gave us a long list of problems to fix. It was intimidating and depressing to see how much work would be needed even after the high cost of buying the house.

What prevented us from giving up on the house, was that he prioritized the list of problems to show which items were critical to fix before purchasing the house, what would need to be done within the next year, which things could wait a few years, and what were optional but recommended fixes. That made his recommended changes seem more doable. We knew what fixes it would be reasonable to ask the seller to make, which items to focus on first after buying the house, and what we could wait on.

With user research findings and recommendations, it’s important to give your audience a sense of the severity of the problems and the priority of what should be addressed first. Like a home buyer, few clients have the time and money to fix all the problems right away. Receiving a large list of problems and recommended fixes can lead to a defeated feeling and a desire to ignore the problem or just give up. Instead, give them a sense that the problems are manageable and that it’s possible to focus on fixing a few items first and then gradually address additional problems over time.

A UX Researcher’s New Year’s Resolutions

New Year

Flickr: RLHyde

Try new things

In 2013, I’ll try new techniques instead of relying on the same routine research activities. For each project, I’ll step back and think about what research activities make the most sense based on the situation. Trying new things and inventing new techniques keeps things interesting.

Work faster

This year, I’ll do some things faster, to be more agile and lean where possible so that research continues to be included in projects. We’ve done a good job of selling clients and project team members on the value of including user research in projects. The remaining hurdle is that it often takes longer than they would like. There definitely are areas that can be sped up.

Work slower

In 2013, I’m going to use the time I save on working faster to spend more time on the activities that provide the most value. Some things shouldn’t be rushed. Analysis of research data, for example, is the most important, but least understood part of user research. No one ever seems to understand what analysis involves, how long it can take, and how important it is. In 2013, I’m going to fight for the time needed for analysis and do a better job explaining what it involves, why it takes so long, and why it’s so important to give it the time needed.

Get better participants

In 2013, instead of aiming high and settling for what we’re able to recruit, I’m going to create better screeners and spend more time making sure that the people who have been recruited, match the type of people we want to get. I’m going to be especially careful when clients are doing the recruiting of their own customers, employees, or members. I’ll give them better instructions in findings and recruiting people, and I’ll evaluate the types of people that they’ve scheduled.

Publish and present

In 2013, I’ll continue to publish articles in UXmatters and elsewhere. I’ll try to present at a conference. Publishing and presenting are great ways to share your knowledge with others in the field. For more tips on publishing and presenting, see my series of articles on Publishing and Presenting in UXmatters.

Attend more UX events

In 2013, I’ll attend more local UX events. In Philadelphia, we have a very active CHI group, PhillyCHI, but I always find it difficult to get motivated to go out after a long work day and attend their events. Every time I do attend, however, I find that it’s a great way to meet others in the field, and I always learn something useful.

Read more

In 2013, I’d like to read more UX-related books and articles. That’s easier said than done when you’re really busy at work. And after a day practicing UX, it’s difficult to get motivated to read UX in your spare time. Usually, I want to read anything else. Fortunately, a great trend in UX books is towards shorter, more practical books that can be read quickly (for example, the Rosenfeld Media books).

Be thankful for what I have

It can feel good to complain and think about what could be better about your job, but I find that I often don’t think about how good I have it. I’m doing a job I enjoy, that’s challenging, and usually interesting. In 2013, I’d like to focus more on the positive and appreciate what I have. If I find that I have only complaints and nothing to be thankful for, I’ll know that it’s up to me to change things.

Those are my resolutions. I hope I can achieve most, if not all of them, in 2013.

Writing and Publishing is Hard Work

word

Ugh! It’s December, and I feel I have to write something. I haven’t published anything since November, and I feel like I should have at least one post a month. But it’s hard to write a blog. Finding the time to write something worthwhile is difficult. When you also publish elsewhere, as I do, it’s especially difficult. Your blog ends up as the recipient of whatever energy and ideas are left after publishing elsewhere.

Several recent developments have also made me realize how difficult it is to publish a Web magazine. These magazines are run by volunteers and are rarely money making ventures. They depend on volunteer writers and editors, who each have their own work and personal responsibilities competing with their side project – working on the Web magazine.

Last week, for example, Johnny Holland, one of the leading Web magazines focused on interaction design, announced that it was ending its run (at least for now). In November, Boxes and Arrows, perhaps the oldest UX Web magazine, announced that it was Not Dead Yet and asked for the next generation of volunteers to take over running the site.

There are still several great UX Web magazines out there. I highlight these in my latest article on UXmatters – Publishing and Presenting, Part 2: Publishing. If you’ve ever had an interest in writing or getting involved in publishing, I recommend reading my advice about the writing process and where and how to get published.

If you need motivation to start publishing or presenting, check out part one – Publishing and Presenting, Part 1: Yes, You Can! And look for part 3 coming out in the next few weeks, about presenting at conferences.

A Researcher Observing User Research

I had an interesting experience recently observing another user researcher conducting user research. I was overseeing a project with a more junior researcher who was actually doing the work. She was conducting contextual inquiries, and I was the secondary person on the team, simply observing her lead the session. The experience made me realize several things.

What you notice as an observer

It’s difficult to let someone else lead

Sitting back and simply observing instead of leading the session was a very odd experience for me. I’m used to taking the active role and leading the session. It was difficult to restrain myself from asking questions and taking over the session. It took me a while to relax and just let the session unfold. Once I did that, I realized that I noticed different things.

You notice different things

When you’re simply observing and you don’t have to facilitate, you’re able to observe more. Since you don’t have to focus on taking notes, assessing the information that you’re taking in, thinking of the next question to ask, and maintaining a positive rapport with the participant; you can focus more on the context in which the tasks are performed. Since I knew my colleague was recording the session and taking detailed notes on what the participant was doing and saying, I found myself taking more notes on the work environment, the participant’s desk, the things posted on the cubicle wall, and tools that the participant used.

You notice how well the research works

As an observer, you notice much more about how well the primary researcher facilitates the session, you see how the participant reacts to the situation, and you pick up tips for your own facilitating. You can sit back and focus on the interaction between the researcher and participant with a critical eye.

What is the role of a secondary researcher?

What can we learn from this, and what’s the role of a secondary researcher on field research? The secondary researcher:

  • Should stay out of the way and let the primary researcher lead the session
  • Can note additional questions and ask them at appropriate intervals, without throwing off the direction of the session
  • Can focus on the environment and contextual cues, taking detailed notes and asking specific questions about these elements
  • Can be the note-taker who takes detailed notes, when there won’t be enough time to listen to the recordings later
  • Can evaluate how well the primary researcher facilitates the session, using that knowledge to provide constructive feedback later and also to improve his/her own skills in facilitation

Two is the magic number of people who should attend field studies. One is the primary researcher. The other can be another researcher, but it’s often better to include a designer to allow him/her to see the research first hand. So in most cases, a second researcher is not the best person to attend research. Although when a second researcher does attend, use the techniques I’ve discussed in this post to make the most of the experience.

Amateur Job Interviewers

Flickr: joelogon

Because asking questions is one of the main things I do as a user researcher, it often amazes me that I’m not better at interviewing job candidates. But a job interview is very different from a user interview. In a job interview, you’re trying to assess the qualifications and suitability of a person who’s actively trying to impress you and may not be telling you the full truth. You’re constantly making judgments. That’s completely different than a user interview, in which you try to remain impartial and neither you nor the interviewee has a vested interest in the outcome, besides trying to understand the person and the tasks he or she performs.

I’m an amateur job interviewer. Expert interviewers, such as the hiring manager and the recruiter or HR person, have the most at stake in interviewing the candidates. Amateur interviewers are usually potential co-workers who are there to assess the qualifications of the candidate and how well the person would fit in with the company.

Most interviewing advice focuses on how to interview with experts, but they don’t give you much insight into the minds of the amateurs. Here are a few things to know about amateur job interviewers.

They’re busy and your interview may be a hassle

Amateur interviewers are often busy. They get a meeting invitation to do a job interview and they accept it without thinking. They may then forget about the interview until a few minutes beforehand. So it’s likely that your interview is an interruption in their workday, which may affect their mood. They may just want to get the interview over with.

You may interview with someone who has been called in at the last minute

Since people are busy, last minute cancellations are common. Project work usually takes precedence over job interviews. So the person you were scheduled to meet with may change to someone else at the last minute. That person who was called in at the last minute is probably even less prepared to interview with you.

They may not have read your resume

Amateur interviewers may take a quick look at your resume when they first get the meeting invitation, but they have probably forgotten the details by the time of the interview. Often, they simply glance over the resume just before or during the beginning of the interview. “Tell me a little about yourself,” is often the first question because they haven’t read your resume.

They don’t necessarily know how to evaluate you

Amateur interviewers often have no interview training. They’ve been on job interviews themselves, but they don’t always know what questions to ask or how to evaluate the responses. Other than trusting your gut opinion, it’s often very difficult to judge someone from just a 30 minute interview.

It’s safer not to make a decision

Since it’s difficult to judge people, it’s often safer to either reject a candidate or recommend additional interviews. Sure, there are clear times when you feel that someone would be a great fit for the job and times when you definitely feel that a candidate should be rejected. But very often, the decision isn’t that clear. In those cases, it may seem safer to turn a candidate down or recommend additional interviews.

They may not want to hire someone

Unlike the HR person or the hiring manager, amateur interviewers may not want to hire another person. They may see an additional employee as a threat. If you appear to be too good, they may feel threatened by you – that you will surpass them or compete for promotions and attention. The interviewer may not see the need for additional employees. You may be seen as someone who will take away their work.

They don’t know the big picture

HR people and hiring managers know about all the candidates that have applied. They’ve likely read the resumes and picked out the best people to interview. They know about the level of talent that their job posting has been attracting and can judge between the possible candidates for the job. Amateur interviewers rarely have all this information. So it’s difficult for them to judge the one or two people they’ve interviewed, because they can’t compare them to the other options.

They won’t take much time to look at samples

Work samples are helpful, but busy people have very little time to look at work samples outside of the interview itself. This is especially true for writing samples, which take more time to read and evaluate.

They may be uncomfortable asking difficult questions

Amateurs are often not comfortable asking tough questions. That may sound like a good thing, but just because a question isn’t asked, doesn’t mean that the question isn’t in the interviewer’s head. Often the biggest doubts about hiring someone seem impolite to ask, which doesn’t give the candidate the ability to address those issues.  For example, “You have no experience in this field, so how do you think you can succeed in this job?” is a great but difficult question to ask. If it’s not addressed, that doubt will still linger in the interviewer’s mind and may be the reason to recommend not hiring you.

How to make the most of an amateur interview

By knowing what an amateur interviewer is thinking, there are a few things you can do to make the most of one of these interviews:

  • Bring extra copies of your resume to hand out to interviewers who don’t have one.
  • Ask them for their name and what they do, since the person you interview with may not be the original person scheduled for the session.
  • Prepare a good summary about yourself when asked, “So, tell me about yourself.”
  • Present your best self, but don’t be too good. You don’t want the interviewer to feel that you’re a threat to their job. You want them to picture you as a friendly co-worker, not a ruthless competitor.
  • Ask the interviewer questions about him/herself, the job, and the company. Most people feel much more comfortable answering questions about themselves and the company rather than asking questions. Amateur interviewers are often the best sources of information about the job, the people who work there, and what it would be like to work for the company.
  • Even if you’ve already asked all your questions of previous interviewers, ask the same questions again with the person you’re currently interviewing with. You don’t seem prepared if you don’t have any questions to ask.
  • Conduct your own assessment of the amateur interviewer. Would you want to work with that person?
  • Bring work samples to show during the meeting. It gives you something to talk about, taking the burden off the interviewer. Also, it’s probably the only time the interviewer will have to look at them.
  • Make sure you address the important points about why you would be a good fit for the position, and proactively answer any possible doubts. The interviewer may be relieved that he or she doesn’t have to ask these uncomfortable questions, and you may relieve their doubts. It also shows that you have good judgment and gives the impression that you’re honest and realistic.
  • Thank them for taking the time out of their busy schedule to interview you.
  • Send a brief and informal thank you email after the interview.

And lastly, remember that once you get the job, someday you’ll end up as an amateur interviewer too. So remember what the situation was like on the other side of the interview table.

Too Cool for Your Usability Test

CoolNo matter how well you recruit representative participants for a usability test and no matter how well you plan the testing, there are times when you’ll ask participants to perform a task that they might not normally perform themselves. It’s rare that every task you ask people to perform matches exactly what they would do. When this happens, most participants are agreeable enough to just “play along” for the purposes of the test.

Sure, it’s good to know what a participant would normally do instead of your planned task, but that’s more useful to learn during field studies. During a usability test, you usually just want to observe how well people can perform tasks.

During a recent usability test of an intranet design, I asked participants to browse the Blogs section to test out the usability of the filtering and searching functions common across the various sections of the intranet. I used the Blogs section as an example because that was the section we had built out in our prototype. Unfortunately, I came across two participants who were “too cool” to read blogs. In fact, they were too cool to even play along with my ridiculous and demeaning scenario.

It went something like this:

Me: Show me where you’d go if you wanted to see all the blogs in the company.

Joe Cool: Oh, I wouldn’t do that.

Me: Why?

Joe Cool: I don’t read the blogs.

Me: Why is that?

Joe Cool: Who cares about blogs? I don’t have time to read blogs.

Me: Okay, but if you did want to see all the blogs, where would you find them?

Joe Cool: I really wouldn’t do that. People here don’t really pay attention to the blogs. Who has time for that? We have enough to do with…

[Two minutes later]

Me: Okay, well that’s good to know, but just for the sake of this session, let’s say that you did want to read the blogs, where would you go to do that?

Joe Cool: [Sigh] Well, I guess I’d go here, and – here it is. But you see the problem with blogs is that…

[One minute rant later]

Me: Okay, what would you do if you wanted this to show you the most popular blog posts in the company?

Joe Cool: I don’t really care about what other people think is popular, especially from people who read blogs.

Me: Okay, but if someone else wanted to see the most popular blog posts in the company, what should they do here?

Joe Cool: Maybe they should ask someone else who reads blogs a lot? Or they should get a life and do something more productive.

Me: Okay, let’s move on to the next part…

Luckily, the next task was cool enough for him. Sometimes that’s all you can hope for.

How Many Brains is Your User Research In?

Brain

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sure, it saves time to skip official research deliverables and just apply the research knowledge you’ve learned directly to the design, but it’s shortsighted. Unlike design, which leaves behind a tangible artifact that you can see, feel, and use; user research consists of abstract knowledge locked in the brain of the researcher until it’s presented effectively in a deliverable. If that knowledge isn’t officially captured and presented understandably to others, it tends to get lost over time.

That became clear to me recently when I was asked to take over a project for a Researcher who was leaving our company. Because of a very short timeframe, there was no official deliverable from her contextual inquiries, only informal notes. She was asked to give me a “knowledge transfer,” and provide me with her high-level notes. Needless to say, the knowledge transfer didn’t go very well, and she left the company taking her brain with her, including all the research it contained.

A similar mistake occurs when multiple researchers work on a project, dividing up the sessions between themselves. To project managers and clients, that can sound like a great idea. Two researchers can either get the research done in half the time, or they can double the number of participants in the same time frame. The problem is that instead of building up knowledge through repetition, each researcher only has the knowledge of half of the sessions. To analyze the results, they have to then somehow combine what they observed.

So until they invent a direct brain-to-brain transfer device: attend every session, don’t split up sessions between multiple researchers, and produce effective and comprehensive deliverables to document your findings for future generations.

What’s Wrong With Usability Anyway?

old man

Old Man Usability

 

Okay, fine. I get it. You don’t think that I, usability, am cool anymore, and you don’t want to be seen with me now. I’m the dorky, embarassing parent, and you want to hang out with your cool, “user experience” friends. That’s okay. It’s only a natural part of growing up, I guess.

 

Although I brought you into this field, gave you your first job, supported you, and brought you respect and recognition, I guess you’re ready to go out on your own now, and you need to establish your own identity. That’s understandable, but I must admit I was a little hurt when even my most loyal child, the Usability Professionals Association changed its name to the User Experience Professionals Association. Okay, actually that one hurt a lot.

Don’t get me wrong, I do admit that “user experience” makes sense. There’s more to what people experience than just usability. I realize that. But don’t ever forget that usability is still very important. In fact, I’m probably the most important of the elements that make up user experience. If something isn’t usable, then it can’t really be useful, desirable, or valuable can it?

In fact, most of what you and your friends do under the name “user experience” today is what we did back in my day, under the name “usability.” So I don’t really see the big difference.

I think I deserve a little respect, though. I spent many years making a name for myself and getting people to think about the needs of the user. The current popularity of user experience wouldn’t be possible without the trail I blazed first. At least people know my name, usability, and what it means. Try finding a consistent definition of user experience, ha!

So after all I’ve done for you, this is the thanks I get? People declare that usability is old, tired, boring, uncool, not innovative, and even claim that I’m dead? Just wait until you have offspring of your own. See how you feel when they move on from user experience to the next buzz word.

Already I can see it beginning. Everyone’s jumping on the bandwagon and calling themselves a user experience professional these days. The term user experience is getting too broadly defined and overexposed. I can feel the pendulum starting to swing back. At this point, I’m so uncool that I’m actually becoming cool again. Soon I’ll be able to say, “I’m back!” Just you wait and see!

Tattle Tale Participants

Have you ever come across a tattle-tale participant? See if this sounds familiar.

You conduct a user research session (interview, contextual inquiry, focus group, etc.), asking simple questions to get the participants to speak about the subject at a basic level of understanding. Although you may know some of the answers to the questions you’re asking, you ask the questions anyway to hear the answers from the participants’ perspective. Misunderstanding your intent, the participant is alarmed that you don’t know what you’re doing and tattles on you to the client, “It was clear from his questions that he didn’t know anything about our process/system/technology.”

For example, a few years ago I was doing research on a company’s use of SAP. We had a group of interns show us the HR tasks that they do in SAP. Our questions led them to conclude that we didn’t know anything about SAP (which was mostly correct). They tattled to their manager who contacted our main client, alarmed that we weren’t SAP experts. Fortunately, he reassured her that we were user experience experts, and we weren’t supposed to be SAP experts.

What turns a participant into a tattle tale? Usually, it comes from a misunderstanding of our role. As user experience consultants working on many different projects, we constantly have to learn about new organizations, new systems, new processes, new technologies, and new types of people. We interview business stakeholders and conduct user research to learn about these things, but our goal isn’t to become experts. In fact, it’s often better to not be an expert. We have the advantage of seeing a group, system, process, or set of tasks from an outside perspective. Because we don’t already have the same insider knowledge as the business stakeholders and participants,  we can get them to explain things to us as outsiders. To do this, we often need to ask basic questions and sometimes even act “dumb” to get participants to fully explain things that they would otherwise forget to explain or gloss over at a high level.

The worst thing about tattling is that it can make us afraid to ask questions for fear that they might expose our “ignorance.” So make it clear who the experts are – the users and the business stakeholders, and where your expertise lies – user experience. Combining the expertise of business stakeholders, users, and user experience professionals is the key to a successful project.

Caring for Your User Researcher

Affectionate dog

Affectionate dog (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Congratulations! You are now the proud owner of a user researcher. Treat him or her well and you’ll have years of effectively designed products. This guide will help you in the care and nurturing of your user researcher.

Feed your researcher well

  • Research days are often very busy and unpredictable. The most important person to consider on these days is not the clients or other observers; it’s the person who has to remain sharpest – the researcher.
  • Make sure your researcher is well fed and has enough time to eat meals. This will provide the energy needed to concentrate on the research session.
  • You may remember the meals, but don’t forget the snacks. If everyone else gets cookies, make sure you save some for the researcher.

Avoid burnout

  • Research is often very mentally challenging. It’s easy for your researcher to get burned out, and when that happens, he or she can’t operate at top form, which could mean missing things or not asking the right questions.
  • Don’t schedule too many sessions in a single day. Four to five usability testing sessions and three or four field studies are about the maximum before burnout sets in.
  • Provide enough breaks between sessions, and allow your researcher to relax during those times.
  • Don’t fill the break times with meetings or discussions with clients. Provide time to rest the mind. Your researcher may need to step away and have some alone time.

Provide variety

  • Most researchers don’t want to do the same things all the time. If you don’t provide enough variety, eventually he or she will seek variety by going to another company.
  • Provide variety in the following aspects: clients, platforms to work on (websites, intranets, mobile devices, software, products, service design, etc.), research activities (usability testing, unmoderated studies, field studies, etc.), and types of people to work with.

Let your researcher run free

  • Don’t micromanage your user researcher. Trust his or her judgment.
  • Provide input on what you want to learn from the research, review the research plan, but give your researcher the independence to make the final decisions on how to accomplish the research goals. Remember you selected your researcher for his or her expertise. Listen to it.

Provide enough time to do quality work

  • Ensure that your researcher has enough time to plan the research and analyze the results.
  • Understand that your researcher will often get very interested and involved in the results and will want to produce a thorough deliverable. If there is time, allow for this.

Give praise and recognition

  • Like most people, your researcher will appreciate praise, recognition, and rewards for a job well done.
  • Your researcher will appreciate it when people take the user research seriously and appreciate the findings.

Let your researcher out to play with others

  • Your researcher will often interact with users, but otherwise, research is often a solitary activity that can get somewhat lonely.
  • Encourage your researcher work with others on the project team, such as designers and developers, to provide a more well-rounded perspective of their work and to give them a first-hand insight into the research.
  • Don’t exclude your researcher as soon as the research part of the project is completed. Keep your researcher around to use his or her valuable knowledge in the design and development phases.

Encourage your researcher’s development

  • Encourage your researcher to keep up with developments in the field by reading books, reading blogs and other Web resources, and attending events.
  • Encourage him or her to publish, present, and attend conferences and other industry events.

By following these guidelines, you should have a long and healthy working relationship with your user researcher. Good luck and have fun!

 

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